A “triumphalistic, self-righteous atheism” inspired by the work of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is winning a following among American young people, leading to “atheist clubs” in high schools, according to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.
The cardinal, who is President of the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference, says that unbelief among young people is more than a question of stopping going to church: it is part of a fashionable “new atheism” which is every bit as intolerant as Christian fundamentalism. He told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter:
“In Chicago, we now have atheist clubs in high schools. We didn’t have those five years ago. Kids I would have confirmed in the eighth grade, by the time they’re sophomores in high school say they’re atheists. They don’t just stop going to church, they make a statement. I think that’s new. That’s perhaps a bit more like Europe.”
The Cardinal agreed with Allen’s suggestion that that the atheism of Dawkins and Harris was “highly evangelical”:
“Yes it is, sure. Everybody has said that, and it’s true. It’s the mirror image of a kind of fundamentalism, because it’s very restrictive in its use of reason. It’s also very triumphalistic and self-righteous.”
The Cardinal’s comments will be hard to dismiss as scaremongering. YouTube is crawling with videos by articulate, friendly American teenagers and university students proclaiming their uncompromising atheism; indeed, atheism is one of the fastest-growing movements in the 18-25 age group, casting doubt on old assumptions that the religious impulse is somehow hard-wired into the American psyche.
Yet, as Cardinal George says, there is something strongly akin to religious fundamentalism in the evangelical commitment it arouses in its adherents. He, and the whole of the American Church, must be praying that the certainty of unbelief wears off as the “new atheists” have children and face the prospect of mortality. But, as statistics from Europe indicate, this not a foregone conclusion: atheism, like any other belief system, can be passed from one generation to the next.